Traffic equilibria in the US and Kenya

A lane of a Nairobi road is taken up by a herd of cattleTraffic on Ngong Rd, Nairobi

As an American in Nairobi, I get asked regularly if it’s difficult to switch to driving on the left side of the road.  It’s actually surprisingly intuitive!  (Aside from the fact that I still regularly hit the windshield wipers when going for the turn signal — they’re on opposite sides of the steering wheel in a right-hand drive car.)  However, it’s taken me more time to transition to a different equilibrium for how drivers interact with one another in traffic.  I’d argue that the US has a rules-oriented equilibrium, whereas Kenya has a attention-oriented equilibrium.

In the US, drivers generally follow the rules of the road, and assume that others will do the same.   This is supported by the presence of other technologies that make driving more predictable, like stoplights at intersections, and sidewalks which keep pedestrians out of the road.  All of this reduces the cognitive load of driving in the US.   The roads are designed to help people drive safely, and you can generally assume that other cars will be where you expect them to be on the road.  Conversely, this also means that it’s easy to be a distracted driver, and it’s more difficult to react quickly when something unexpected does occur.

In Nairobi, drivers are less likely to follow the rules of the road — but they do seem to pay closer attention to the movement of traffic around them, and assume that others will do so as well.  It’s a useful response in a city whose roads are full of pedestrians and the occasional herd of cattle, where traffic rules are sporadically enforced, and where many major intersections only recently got stoplights.  The best way to safely navigate all of this is to constantly assess what other people on the road are doing, and plan one’s own reactions accordingly.  This skill is particularly likely to be put to use at matatu stages, where it’s common to have an enormous bus pull out in front of you at speed with no signal, in the apparent belief that you’ll definitely notice where they’re going in time to give way to them.  Given the risk in traffic moves like these, I’ve really expected to see many more accidents than I have done during my commute, and it seems to me that an increased level of attention is substituting to some degree for other traffic safety procedures.

To be clear, attention to traffic flows isn’t at all a sufficient substitute for traffic enforcement and improved urban planning.  Kenya has one of the highest rates of traffic deaths in the world, and pedestrians are especially at risk, since many people in cities like Nairobi still get around on foot, and there’s very little pedestrian infrastructure in most neighborhoods.  The government often prioritizes the construction of new roads over meeting other needs of urban citizens.  The attention orientation is not an optimal solution, but a second-best response to a number of other policy failures.

2 thoughts on “Traffic equilibria in the US and Kenya

  1. driving in many parts of the world can be a chaotic mess, and I guess the only way to survive is to ‘go with the flow’. I remember crossing from Thailand to Cambodia years ago when the roads could barely be called roads in Cambodia, and actually not know which side of the road they drove on for several hours in the back of a pickup until we finally hit our first sealed road!

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  2. Driving in Cairo is very much the same. It looks like a crazed chaotic mess, but in fact every driver is paying close attention to every other driver. It’s a cooperative experience, like we’re all working together to get to our destinations. People are constantly amazed that I can drive here, but it’s no more difficult than in the US – just a different kind of difficult.

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